Jonathan Cilley

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Jonathan Cilley
Jonathan Cilley, U.S Congressman, circa 1838
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1837 – February 24, 1838
Preceded by Jeremiah Bailey
Member of the Maine House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born July 2, 1802
Nottingham, New Hampshire, USA
Died February 24, 1838 (aged 35)
Bladensburg, Md., USA
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Deborah Prince Cilley
Alma mater Bowdoin College
Profession Lawyer
Newspaper editor

Jonathan Cilley (July 2, 1802 – February 24, 1838) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine. He served part of one term in the 25th Congress. Cilley died during his term as the result of a wound sustained in a duel with another Congressman, William J. Graves of Kentucky.

Early life[edit]

Jonathan Cilley was born in Nottingham, New Hampshire, and was the son of Greenleaf Cilley, brother of Joseph Cilley, grandson of Major General Joseph Cilley, and nephew of Bradbury Cilley.

Cilley attended Bowdoin College and was a member of the famed class of 1825, which included future literary giants Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While at Bowdoin, Cilley also became close friends with future U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a member of the class of 1824. Deciding to stay in Maine after graduating from Bowdoin, Cilley studied law with John Ruggles, was admitted to the bar in 1828, and practiced in Thomaston.

Marriage and political career[edit]

In 1829, Jonathan Cilley married Deborah Prince, the daughter of local businessman Hezekiah Prince. Jonathan and Deborah had five children, two of whom died very young. Their surviving children were Greenleaf (b. 1829), Jonathan Prince (b. 1835), and Julia (b. 1837). Jonathan Prince Cilley became a Brevetted Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Cilley edited the Thomaston Register from 1829–1831 and represented Thomaston in the Maine House of Representatives from 1831–1836, serving as Speaker in his final two years. He was then elected to the United States Congress, but did not complete his first term.

Fatal duel[edit]

Jonathan Cilley died in office after sustaining a fatal wound in a duel with William J. Graves of Kentucky, a fellow Congressman. The political climate surrounding the Twenty-fifth U.S. Congress became increasingly partisan. Majority Democrats fought with minority Whigs over the response to the Panic of 1837, which was generally blamed on Democratic President Martin Van Buren. Underlying this conflict was lingering bitterness over the decision of Van Buren's predecessor, Democrat Andrew Jackson, not to recharter the Second Bank of the United States. One of the pillars of the Whig press was the New York Courier and Enquirer, an East Coast newspaper edited by James Watson Webb.

Democrats, including Jonathan Cilley, considered Webb's coverage of Congress to be biased and unfair; Cilley vented some of his political party's bitterness in remarks made on the House floor, and suggested that Webb's change from opposing to supporting the rechartering of the bank came about because Webb received loans from the bank totaling $50,000. Webb, who considered himself insulted by Cilley's suggestion of quid pro quo corruption, persuaded a Whig friend, Congressman William J. Graves, to deliver Webb's challenge to a duel. Cilley refused to accept the letter, in terms which Graves decided were an insult to his honor; Graves then challenged Cilley, and Cilley felt honor bound to accept. Dueling was prohibited within the boundaries of the District of Columbia, so the participants and their seconds – George W. Jones for Cilley and Henry A. Wise for Graves – arranged to meet on February 24, 1838, at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, just inside the border with Maryland.

As the challenged party, Cilley had the choice of weapons. Because of Graves' reputation as an expert pistol shot, Cilley selected rifles, with the distance between the duelists to be 80 yards, a distance far enough apart to negate Graves' supposed shooting skill; in actuality, the marked off distance on the day of the duel was 94 yards. After their first fire missed, the participants shortened the distance and fired again, but again both shots missed. On the third exchange of shots, Graves fatally wounded Cilley by shooting him through the femoral artery. Cilley bled to death on the dueling ground within a matter of minutes. He was buried in Elm Grove Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine.[1]


After Cilley's death, longtime friend Nathaniel Hawthorne published two biographical sketches of him. His colleagues paid tribute to him by passing a federal law on February 20, 1839, which strengthened the strict prohibition against dueling in Washington, D.C. by making it a crime to issue or accept a challenge within district limits, even if the actual duel was to take place outside the district.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jonathan Cilley (1802–1838) – Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 21 May 2015. 

External links[edit]

Additional reading[edit]

  • Maine League of Historical Societies and Museums (1970). Doris A. Isaacson, ed. Maine: A Guide 'Down East'. Rockland, Me: Courier-Gazette, Inc. p. 261. 
  • Memoirs and Services of Three Generations: General Joseph Cilley, First New hampshire Line. War of the Revolution; Johnathan Longfellow, Father of sarah, wife of General Joseph Cilley; Colonel Joseph Cilley, U.S. Senator and Officer in the War of 1812; Honorable Johnathan Cilley, Member of Congress from Maine; Commander Greenleaf Cilley, War with Mexico and War of 1861; General Johnathan P. Cilley, First Maine Cavalry, War of the Rebellion – reprint from the Courier-Gazette, Rockland Maine, 1909
  • Biographical Sketch of Jonathan Cilley by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The United States Democratic Review (J.& H.G. Langley, etc., New York), Sept. 1838, vol. 3 issue 9, pp. 69–77 Available online at [1] (accessed March 8, 2008).
  • Political Portraits with Pen and Pencil. No. IX. Jonathan Cilley by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The United States Democratic Review (J.& H.G. Langley, etc., New York), Sept. 1838, vol. 3 issue 9, pp. 67–69. Available online at [2] (accessed March 8, 2008).
  • New England Must Not Be Trampled On – The Tragic Death of Jonathan Cilley – by Rober Ginn. ISBN 978-1-60893-387-7. Camden Maine, DownEast Books, 2016.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Jeremiah Bailey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 3rd congressional district

March 4, 1837 – February 24, 1838
Succeeded by
Edward Robinson